Animation Domination

Last year’s computer animated feature Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs took in $888 million at the worldwide box office, making it the third most successful animated film ever, behind DreamWorks’s Shrek 2 and Pixar’s Finding Nemo. The only thing odd about that, if anything’s odd, is the relative anonymity of the filmmakers: Blue Sky Studios. You have heard all about DreamWorks and Pixar and Disney; you can even picture their trademark images: the boy who fishes from a crescent moon, the hopping desk lamp, the Cinderella Castle lit by fireworks.

But Blue Sky Studios? Well. In a land not so very far away—northwest Greenwich—there stands a shimmering glass building that is like a palace of dreams. I asked to be invited there, imagining the dream makers would politely decline to raise a curtain on their movie magic. Animation studios are famously secretive. They spend years making a feature film, and they don’t want some interloper a) spying for the competition, or b) ruining the carefully timed drumroll leading up to a major release. But you know what? Blue Sky said to come on over. So I drove out to that tiny cluster of hills just north of Interstate 684, parked beneath a single fleecy cloud, and rode the elevator up to the airy third floor of the Greenwich American Center.

 

Blue Sky, though owned by 20th Century Fox, remains a steadfast East Coaster, aloof from animation’s California nerve centers. (Connecticut lured it here from White Plains in January 2009, using tax incentives as bait.) Perhaps Blue Sky’s isolation contributes to its subtle mystique. In any case, surprisingly little has been written about the studio, given its huge grosses and perfect batting average. All five of its feature films have been hits, beginning with the original Ice Age in 2002, in which the oddball trio of Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the sabre-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) try to return a human baby to its tribe. Blue Sky followed with Robots (2005), Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! (2008). Last year’s Ice Age, a monster hit, received good reviews, but critics seemed surprised that it raked in so much cash, since 2009 proved historic for animation excellence. Still, neither Monsters vs. Aliens, nor The Princess and the Frog, nor Coraline, nor Fantastic Mr. Fox, nor even the Academy Award-winning Up approached Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ popular appeal as measured in ticket sales.

Blue Sky’s front desk was vacant, all except for a large stuffed Scrat—the squirrel-rat from the Ice Age films—staring at me with those great buggy eyes of his. I am sure he wanted an acorn. Anyone with kids will recall the hilarious opening sequence of the first Ice Age, directed by Blue Sky cofounder Chris Wedge, in which Scrat tries to bury an acorn for safekeeping but instead makes a little crack in the icy tundra that brings down a mountainous glacier. As I was patting my pockets for acorns, Christina Witoshkin, Blue Sky’s marketing and communications manager, alighted, and took me behind the figurative curtain. Wow. Light poured in. Scooters flitted past. Guitar chords sounded in the dim, cubicled distance. Everyone was dressed in shorts and T-shirts, as if for a softball game. The ridiculously talented young people in the animation department labored away in a makeshift treehouse, with a Lost Boyz sign hanging over the entrance. Clearly, this was a realm of unfettered creativity, free of the usual corporate strictures.

Coming to a Screen Near You
Brian Keane, Blue Sky’s chief operating officer, was the most formally attired person I saw. He wore a casual button down shirt and faded blue jeans. He appeared to be in an excellent mood, no doubt owing to the film Rio, hurtling toward completion as we spoke. Scheduled for release in April 2011, it’s about a rare blue macaw (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) living a restful, flightless caged life in Minnesota—until he gets wind of a female counterpart (Anne Hathaway) down in crazy Rio de Janeiro. Road trip ensues. At Blue Sky, there’s a palpable sense that the studio is sitting on a blockbuster of Ice Age proportions. “It’s amazing, amazing,” Keane says of the film, directed by Carlos Saldanha. “Visually, it’s about flight the way Finding Nemo is about underwater.”

Saldanha directed the second two Ice Age films, but Rio is his baby, the film he was born to make. “Carlos is from Rio, it’s the culture of his childhood, and he grew up with an absolute love for tropical birds,” Keane says. “The people that are working on this film absolutely love it, the vibrancy of the colors, the birds, the exotic dance and the music (composed by Brazilian jazz legend Sergio Mendes and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas).”

Christina sat me down in a screening room to watch (in 3-D) the just-completed two-minute trailer for Rio, in which our Minnesota macaw, Blu, tests out his wings by leaping off a Brazilian cliff. It doesn’t go well. Blu flops onto a passing hang glider, whose pilot proves equally inept at flying, and together they swoop down onto a crowded Rio beach, knocking umbrellas about like bowling pins. The visual detail is never less than stunning. You see wind riffle the fine feathers on Blu’s neck and chest as he falls, just as if he were a real bird. “In this movie, you’ll see some stuff you’ve never seen before in animation,” Keane says. His clear blue eyes sparkle like the company logo. “The bar never goes down. It always goes up.”

Animation is in the middle of a new golden age. Though all three major animation techniques—hand-drawn, stop-motion and computer-generated (CG)—are breaking new ground, it is the latter category that has really driven the business since Pixar put out Toy Story in 1995 and upped the ante with superb twenty-first century films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Toy Story 3. CG animation tends to have a certain look: smooth, rounded, heavily sculpted characters who exist in settings with great depth of field. But CG animation has its detractors. They claim that digital imagery lacks the warm, painterly qualities of Disney classics like Pinocchio and Bambi, that it can’t match the visual poetry of present-day Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, best known here for Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Blue Sky is a full-tilt CG studio, to be sure, but one with a record of pushing the science of animation toward anthropomorphic warmth.

“To think that it all started in a little three-room office in Briar Cliff,” says Carl Ludwig, a Blue Sky cofounder who heads its research and development group. I encountered the soft-spoken computer genius in a back corner of the building, outside the office of Chris Wedge, who was coming into view down a very long corridor. Wedge and Ludwig are CG imagery pioneers. While working at an early CG animation studio called MAGI, they created effects for Disney’s cyberfantasy Tron (1982), the first feature to extensively use computer graphics. Today Tron is seen as a sort of Manhattan Project for a brilliant new generation of animators. Though MAGI eventually failed, Wedge, Ludwig and four others who were true believers in CG’s potential—even if those early images looked a little sterile—went on to create Blue Sky in 1987.

At Briar Cliff, Ludwig, a former NASA engineer, and Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy, a nuclear physicist, wrote a software program called CGI Studio that gives Blue Sky films their distinctive look—a rich, luminous look that derives from projecting virtual light rays onto a digital scene. How dense or transparent is an object? How reflective is its surface? How does the reflectivity change when a cloud passes over, or when the object gets dirty? These are the sorts of problems that Ludwig studies. “This way of rendering light, which we call ‘radiosity,’ was something that Carl was passionate about putting into our technology,” Wedge explains. “It’s a way to make the lighting much, much more natural than it normally is in computer rendering. But it was very computing intensive.” (And still is: “About once a week, the
R and D team releases some new version of the millions of lines of code they’ve created,” Brian Keane had told me minutes earlier.)

Wedge is wearing blue jeans with more holes in them than fabric. His longish hair is sort of wild, as if jumbled in the throes of creativity. If Ludwig represents Blue Sky’s scientific brain, Wedge represents its artistic soul. “When we first started Blue Sky, the first CG feature film [Toy Story] was almost ten years off,” Wedge says. “In my experience, vision is like headlights. It only shines so far down the road. You can’t see exactly where you’re going, you just see a little bit ahead. We were more excited about the potential for what we could do—more a ‘Let’s put on a show.’ You know, ‘My dad’s got a garage, we can use it’ kind of thing than a ‘Oh, here’s a business plan. Here’s how our money will be invested, here’s how we’ll raise more, here’s how we’ll build a company.’ There was nothing like that. How we’ll keep the lights on was the business plan.”

Blue Sky’s two sides—science and art—merged seamlessly in Wedge’s gorgeous Bunny, winner of the 1998 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In seven wordless minutes, we are told of an elderly rabbit baking a carrot cake in her pleasantly old-fashioned kitchen. It is nighttime. There is an old photograph hanging on the wall: a young Bunny with her dapper husband, whom we understand to be dead. A bothersome moth flutters forth through an open window. Bunny, in hobbling pursuit, makes havoc of her kitchen, but finally dunks the moth in batter and throws the cake into the oven. Bunny naps. Then something odd happens. The oven rumbles and shakes and casts out a weird glow. Bunny opens it to find the moth suspended there like a humming bird.

Bunny crawls in, mesmerized, as the oven’s speckled interior becomes a starry night, into which she rises, up and up, surrounded by cosmic moths, her apron strings coming loose and flapping like wings. (You can find Bunny at YouTube.)

Where on earth did Bunny come from? “Oh, in moments driving. Or in the shower,” he says. “I think the visual ideas came a lot from childhood memories, cabins where we’d spent our summers in upstate New York. And then the narrative just came together as I was designing it.” Wedge praises Ludwig and the other light-rendering scientists for Bunny’s visual distinction. “Up till that point, computer imagery was kind of electronic and vacuous. This was one of the first moments where it really looked natural.”

The Little Studio That Could
It could be said that Blue Sky was built upon Bunny. The film announced a rare combination of technical innovation and narrative heart. Recognizing this, 20th Century Fox handed Blue Sky its first feature film project: Ice Age, developed from a concept by Fox producer Lori Forte. How did that film’s massive success change things? “It just made life a lot harder,” Wedge says with a weary chuckle. “It really did. It got us more attention. It put pressure on us to succeed even bigger than we had.” Back in the shoestring days, when Blue Sky was creating special effects for films and TV commercials—flying cough drops, levitating electric razors, talking coffee beans—“we weren’t interested in success. We were brain dead, I think.”

“But making a feature film was something we’d always wanted to do,” Ludwig adds helpfully.

If Wedge can seem equivocal about Blue Sky’s massive success, it’s because of that artist’s soul of his, which wants to wander freely beyond the jokey conventions of American animation. “In our culture, animation is for children first,” he said. “We don’t take it seriously.” The ideal is to make films that strike a note of wonder in children and adults alike, he said. “I guess the big thing is, this is still a business. And it’s a business where you roll gigantic dice. There’s a lot at stake for each of these films.”

Ice Age, the only Blue Sky film nominated for Best Animated Feature, guaranteed Blue Sky’s viability as a big-league studio. Jerry Beck, an animation historian and operator of the CartoonBrew.com website, spoke with me by phone from Los Angeles: “The fact that this little studio made a mega-blockbuster—and a really great film—I mean, the people at Pixar saluted that movie.” One reason they did so: “Blue Sky conquered the problem of rendering humans in CG animation. There was a real struggle with how to do this in those years. You think about the humans in the original Toy Story. Pretty funky.” While CG animation created realistic-looking worlds, the humans who populated them tended to look disturbingly unnatural. “But Blue Sky found a direction that made sense. They kind of cartoonized the humans,” Beck says. Blue Sky and the other studios have built upon that strategy ever since. These days, according to Beck, the great animation trinity is “Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky. And in some cases I would put Blue Sky ahead of DreamWorks. What they’re doing out in Connecticut is right up there with anything else.”

“I think there’s a healthy competition there,” Keane says. “But we don’t compare ourselves. Because if we did, we’d think we’re better.”

Animated feature films are designed to hit that sweet spot where broad appeal and artistic achievement intersect. If Ice Age hit dead center, most observers would say its follow-up, Robots, just missed—though I happen to think it’s Blue Sky’s best film. “You know, it was our smallest success,” says Wedge (though “smallest” means it made a mere $260 million on an $80 million production budget). “It was a film I’d been trying to make for a long time. But after the success of Ice Age, there was just so much pressure to make another blockbuster. Robots didn’t quite become the movie I wanted it to be. There are people like you who like it a lot, or people who never heard of it.”

Wedge’s special challenge was to invent from scratch a world populated entirely by robots. We see that world in its head-spinning futuristic splendor when idealistic young Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Robot City from the hinterlands, determined to make his way as an inventor. Instead of being allowed to follow his dream, however, he finds the kindly industrialist Big Weld (Mel Brooks) ousted and in seclusion, no longer believing his own maxim: “You can shine no matter who you are.” The glittering, cruel new leader of Big Weld Industries is forcing the lovably eccentric, old robots into obsolescence—er, death. Rodney and friends, built of increasingly scarce hand-me-down parts, will be doomed to this fate if Rodney fails to restore the soul, as it were, of this mechanized world.

One might see humorous irony here. Robots loves the charm of old ways, but Blue Sky is thoroughly state-of-the-art, as much science laboratory as animation studio. “There’s constant invention going on here,” Keane tells me. “Things we have in the digital toolbox at the end of a movie are things that didn’t even necessarily exist at the beginning of it.”

Nothing But Blue Skies
A tour of Blue Sky’s movie assembly line dazzles the mind almost as much as Robot City does. Scripts, storyboards and character sketches are just the beginning. Senior sculptor Vicki Sauls takes 2-D character designs (many of them made by acclaimed New Yorker artist Peter DeSeve) and sculpts them into 3-D models. For Rio, she says, her great challenge was the feathering: “You have to make the feathers behave like wings, but also like hands.” Lead character modeler Shaun Cusick lays a computer mesh over a digital image of the sculpture to create a sort of topographical map. Next, in the rigging department, Todd Hill infuses that map with an anatomy, a workable physics. “Think of it as clay,” he tells me. “We put the wire inside of the clay characters. We generate how they can move. Blu, for instance, has more than 2,000 points of articulation.”

Melvin Tan is the senior animator, a Singapore native nurtured on Japanese manga. “We are like the actors in the films,” Tan says. “We have the freedom and the artistic sense to try things out.” On his desk he keeps a little mirror and an old-fashioned sketchpad for testing facial expressions. The animators often film one another performing the script in order to generate human-like physical cues. On the computer, they block out scenes (the actors have already recorded their voice parts, audible on Tan’s computer) for the director’s approval, then do polished, highly detailed versions. It is laborious work. “Each animator can output maybe three-and-a-half to four seconds per week,” Tan says. “And that would be the very most.”

Once animated, the scenes proceed to the fur department (just what it sounds like), and to the materials, special effects and lighting departments. Jon Campbell in fur showed me how feathers are laid in one by one, and how the computer can fluff them up and smooth them down. Materials supervisor Brian Hill showed me how he gets a plastic-y looking scene and applies color, texture and details too minute to notice but that register as a whole: the plaque in Sid the sloth’s teeth, the scratches on his claws, the finely variegated hair coloring. “What we do adds that extra little bit of life that really makes him pop on the screen,” Hill says. Through uniquely intensive coding—Blue Sky’s electronic brain is called a “render farm,” thousands of computers all networked together—he’ll individualize every rock, leaf, chunk of wood, whatever you see onscreen.

FX supervisor Elvira Pinkhas showed me how she makes puffs of dust, sparks, ocean spray and dog drool, all based on some combination of artistic impression and hard algorithm. She played a snippet from Rio featuring a bulldog called Luis, voiced by Tracy Morgan. “See this?” Elvira says. “There are hundreds of spheres that simulate each strand of drool.” Finally, lighting supervisor Jim Gettinger showed me a spectacular aerial scene of Rio de Janeiro from the film, pointing out how a Rio sunrise plays upon the water of the bay, the distant mountains, the Christ the Redeemer statue presiding over the city, the wispy clouds in the foreground and the hang glider flying through them. “Our job is to pull together all the other departments’ work with lighting based on actual physical properties,” Gettinger says. “It looks realistic, but it’s idealized to make a beautiful and pleasing composition.”

Back in Wedge’s office, we were talking about Blue Sky’s future: pretty sunny. There’s yet another Ice Age in the works, to be directed by Mike Thurmeier and Steve Martino and released in July 2012. Then there’s a tantalizing Wedge project called The Leaf Men, using a children’s book of the same title by William Joyce as a take-off point. “It’s going to be an original story,” Wedge began. “Oh, am I not supposed to tell him anything?” Christina smiles ruefully. Okay, so it’s still top-secret. But Wedge promised it would be fetchingly strange. Earlier, I’d remarked on “the quality of strangeness” in Bunny and Robots. It’s a quality that great children’s artists, from the Brothers Grimm to Maurice Sendak, aren’t afraid to grapple with, one that seems to be mined from the deep imagination of childhood. Wedge accepted the remark as the compliment I intended it to be. “Thanks for my quality of strangeness,” he says as we got up to leave.

Outside his office, propped in a corner, was a blue-gray outboard motor of a certain elegant vintage. “That was my grandfather’s,” Wedge remarks. “My grandfather had it when we were kids, upstate in the Adirondacks. I’ve gone fishing with that thing. It would probably start today if you gave it some gas.” I stared at it with a shock of recognition. A robot named Rodney Copperbottom stared back.

 

 

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